An avalanche that killed at least two people at an informal snowmobile rally in Canada's Rocky Mountains may have been triggered by three daredevil sledders who apparently unleashed a deadly wall of snow on up to 200 people below, witnesses said Sunday.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said an even worse tragedy may have been averted because many of the snowmobilers had come equipped with avalanche recovery equipment and dug people out even before rescuers arrived at the scene.
RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk told a news conference Sunday that two men are confirmed dead, not three as reported earlier in the chaotic hours after the slide. He said it remains unknown how many others are still unaccounted for after the slide struck around 3:30 p.m. Saturday on Boulder Mountain.
Moskaluk said they believe the slide was triggered by a stunt known as high-marking — a contest to see who can race up a slope and leave the highest mark. But he declined to say whether the riders responsible have been identified, or whether they were among the dead. Nor would he say whether they could face charges.
He said 30 people were injured, including one person in critical condition and three others in serious condition who were taken to regional hospitals. Nineteen people were treated and released at the local hospital.
Despite avalanche warnings, about 200 people had gathered on the mountain for the Big Iron Shoot Out, an annual unsanctioned event known for its party atmosphere and stunt riding that has become popular among people who enjoy snowmobiling in the deep snow of back country British Columbia.
Two men who witnessed the avalanche said it hit so many people in part because a crowd had stopped at the bottom of the mountain to watch three snowmobilers perform a stunt known as high-marking — a contest to see who can race up a slope and leave the highest mark.
Steve Langevin, 38, said he thought the crowd was safe from "those crazy guys" because the snowmobilers seemed like they were miles away, but the wave of snow was so massive it easily reached them.
'It was stupid'
His friend, Pierre Beaudoin, 48, said he thought the accident could have been prevented if people hadn't been irresponsibly high-marking in avalanche-prone conditions.
"The minute one makes it to the top, oh, the next guy, I could do it, and then it becomes stupid. And it was stupid, they were starting to come from the side, one's coming down and one's going up," he said. "Then everything started going crazy."
Revelstoke Mayor David Raven said an avalanche warning had been in place for three weeks.
"A fresh snowfall overnight exacerbated that warning. I know people have been cautioned again and again," Raven told CTV Newsnet.
Moskaluk said police lacked the authority to shut off public access to sites in the area like Boulder Mountain even if avalanche warnings were in effect.
"People need to risk assess their leisure activities," Moskaluk said. "It appears a number of the people that were participating (in the rally) were able to self-rescue prior to emergency services arriving."
The avalanche occurred near Revelstoke, about 185 miles west of Calgary and 250 miles northeast of Vancouver.
Rescuers sent helicopters over remote Boulder Mountain at daybreak Sunday to determine if conditions were safe for a full-scale ground search after operations were halted overnight because of the darkness.
Police also conducted a door-to-door search of hotel rooms Sunday to piece together how many people were missing. Moskaluk said the hotel room canvass left police more optimistic that the death toll would not rise significantly.
Moskaluk said some people could still be buried on the mountain, but he could not confirm yet if anybody has been reported missing.
"Certainly we're in a better position today than we were yesterday," Moskaluk said. "This site will not be stood down until they are ... 100 percent confident that there's nobody remaining buried."
Kathy Berlingette, owner of the Smokey Bear Campground Resort in the area, said the event was in a remote place and everyone involved had to drive their snowmobiles out to get there. She said all five of her guests in town for the rally survived the avalanche.
She said the slide occurred in a place called Turbo Bowl, at the foot of the mountain, and a group of people, including parents with children, had gathered to watch the snowmobiles go up the hill when the avalanche broke through.
One survivor who came from Fort St. John, in northern British Columbia, for the rally described a "big white wall of snow" coming down on his group of about 20 to 30 snowmobilers.
The man, who did not want to give his name, said they saw the slide coming and had only a few seconds to react. He dove behind his snowmobile, and ended up partially buried. Members of his group dug him out.
'Where's my son?'
Ervin McKeen, 62, of Nanton, Alberta, was nearby when the snow came down and tossed snowmobiles around everywhere. He said one man was screaming "Where's my son?" as he desperately searched the area.
McKeen, an experienced backcountry user, said he used his equipment to lead survivors with shovels to places in the snow where electronic avalanche beacon signals indicated people might be buried.
The Canadian Avalanche Center had issued a warning of a "considerable" risk for avalanches in the region over the weekend after a powerful storm blanketed the area with snow.
Adam Burke, 20, a member of the Revelstoke Snowmobile Club, said he chose not to go to the rally because of the dangerous conditions in the mountains.
Burke said the Big Mountain Shoot Out was started by a Calgary businessman several years ago, and got bigger over the years. It has a reputation for having a party atmosphere, with many riders and onlookers gathering to watch riders perform high-marking and other stunts,
There have been a few avalanche deaths in the British Columbia backcountry this season but nothing compared to last winter, when there were two dozen deaths. There were 13 avalanche deaths the previous winter.